Quick Thoughts on Baltimore

I’m only flitting through, but there are at least four things I have observed about Baltimore: (a) microsized crosswalk signals, no bigger than two cubic feet, suggesting where all pedestrians stand in the transportation food chain, (b) a considerable offering of peanut shops, roughly one every two blocks, which makes me desire to venture further south, (c) a town understandably in debt to George Washington, with monuments in nearly every part of the city ignored by the locals, and (d) a town in which everything closes up at around 6:00 PM.

I’m sorry that I’m not going to have the time to see what now stands in place of the imposing edifice that once housed the Federalist newspaper, or whether there is indeed any monument specifying that this July 27, 1812 riot, which has long fascinated me, was one of the first major post-Revolutionary War acts of violence against the First Amendment.

I’m hoping to come back here again and observe more. One simply cannot take on any metropolitan area within 24 hours, although this hasn’t stopped people who are smarter than me from unfurling impetuous generalizations about this city, home to John Waters and where John Barth once taught. I could dwell upon the many Johns of Baltimore, but I’ll save such a pleasure for another febrile curio (or a valentine?). This city’s variegated makeup reminds me to some degree of San Francisco, in that you can walk three blocks and be in a completely different neighborhood. But the meshing here is more anarchic, making me wonder how effective Baltimore’s zoning forces are. Most residents, from my initial observations, stick to their own territories. Even Berlin is better at cross-cultural fusion.

Within an hour of setting down here, I ventured northward into one downtown area. A gentleman, suspicious of my skin color, insisted that I was “walking the wrong way.” Presumably, he was annoyed by the influx of Caucasians jutting their way to Camden Yards for the Orioles-Red Sox game. It has not occurred to me to apologize on their behalf, although I certainly tried to effect some brotherly amends. I am sorry to say that I did not make this man smile. But I disregarded his warning and ended up chatting with less prejudicial souls in front of a Payless ShoeSource.

Baltimore resists gentrification in certain areas, while embracing it without apology along the divide of Charles Street. Well-heeled dog walkers jut forth their chins with a cartoonish indicator that they are affluent, or certainly desire to be. But sad people sit alone in expensive restaurants. The phrase “Has everything been served to your liking?” replaces “Everything okay?” in restaurants both highbrow and lowbrow. Even those who approach you for change or a cigarette are kinder and more reasonable in their requests, clarifying that they are not, in fact, bums, or do not wish to be. (This was what one gaunt and tired man in his mid-forties told me at an early morning hour.) But despite these peculiar phrasings, people who work in hotels and restaurants offer helpful answers without bullshit, particularly when one treats them with courtesy.

Nevertheless, I was forced to confront one unthinking asshat who tried to back his car over my girlfriend’s toes. He very swiftly backed down and was terrified of my intense gaze. This was not so much an exercise in intimidation on my part (although I was certainly sticking up for my girlfriend, as I am wont to do), as it was a thought experiment on Baltimore masculinity. Masculinity is here in spurts, but has a delayed impulse. Men are happy to expand their chests like peacocks, but they do so when the other man cannot see them. This was evident during another incident I observed in which an unthinking scooter rider nearly toppled over a pedestrian in his mad rush to skedaddle down the sidewalk. The aggrieved party spent a good ten minutes staring at the scooter man. Never mind that the scooter man had no idea what he had done, could not see the other man’s intense stare, and, for all any of us knew, had nearly clipped the toes off another pedestrian in his zeal to race as swiftly as possible.

Perhaps I draw an unfair generalization about Baltimore masculinity here because these two incidents, both involving men, the clipping of toes, and a masculine response, both occurred within an hour. A reverse law of averages, as it were.

Nevertheless, I do like what I have seen of Baltimore. It is certainly a town good enough to produce H.L. Mencken. Perhaps greater sages are gestating in the many brick houses as I write these words.